EPA proposes new rule to crack down on deadly air pollution
For the first time since 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing an update to the federal air quality standard for fine soot — a long-awaited step to reduce deadly air pollution.
The current standard, which has been in place for more than a decade, limits the average annual amount of fine particle pollution to 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The EPA is proposing to reduce that limit to 9 to 10 micrograms, although it will take public comment on a range as low as 8 and as high as 11 micrograms per cubic meter. The final benchmark will be a figure somewhere in that range.
Fine particles – called PM2.5 – pollute the outdoor air from the burning of fossil fuels such as petrol, diesel and oil, as well as wood. It is the smallest pollutant, but among the most dangerous. When inhaled, it travels deep into lung tissue, where it can enter the bloodstream and contribute to cardiovascular disease, asthma and other respiratory diseases.
Exposure to this pollution has also been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in people who have never smoked. Scientists recently found a possible mechanism for this increased risk – certain air pollution particles can induce mutations in cells in the airways.
Given the significant risk to health, the World Health Organization in 2021 recommended that environmental agencies lower the permissible limit to 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Doing so, the organization said, could reduce deaths related to fine particle pollution by up to 80%, although there is no amount of air pollution that is completely safe.
Although stronger than previous standards, the EPA proposal falls short of the WHO recommendation.
Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said the proposal “misses the mark and is insufficient to protect public health.”
“Particulate pollution kills,” Wimmer said in a statement. He said the EPA should follow the guidance of medical experts and implement a limit of 8 micrograms per cubic meter. He also noted that a stronger rule is needed for the average daily limit — from 35 micrograms per cubic meter to 25. The EPA said it is taking public comments on the potential change.
Wimmer said health organizations are “united” on the question.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan defended the proposed rule and said it was drafted after “a long time looking at all the new science” and after consulting with experts within the EPA “as well as our stakeholders.”
“We arrived at this space based on sound science and rigorous evaluation of the data at hand,” Regan told reporters.
The administrator further emphasized that the new standard would help advance the agency’s environmental justice goals. Black and brown communities are disproportionately exposed to particulate matter from industrial facilities and highways.
Doris Browne, an oncologist and president of the National Medical Association, said the EPA’s proposal “will have a lasting impact,” particularly in communities of color.
“I’ve spent my career advocating for health equity and environmental justice, because no one should be sickened by the environment they live in,” Browne told reporters. “Harmful carbon pollution and smog have a lasting and devastating impact on public health, and strengthening air quality standards means healthier, more sustainable communities.”
The EPA is required by law to update the particulate pollution standards every five years and according to the latest available science. The last time they were updated under the Obama administration in 2012, they were lowered from 15 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter.
Standards were not tightened during the Trump administration. The Trump administration’s decision sparked an outcry among environmental and public health groups. Then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the US had already “made tremendous strides in reducing particulate matter concentrations” and there was no need to raise the standard any further. But Wheeler’s comments directly contradicted the recommendation of the EPA’s own scientists, who found that further tightening of soot regulations could save thousands of lives.
Even with the proposed update, the Biden administration is running behind schedule. When Regan first announced that the EPA would consider stricter limits on soot, the agency’s timeline was proposing a draft rule by the summer of 2022, finalizing the rule this spring.
Friday’s proposed rule will be subject to a public comment period and is expected to be finalized later this year.